December 18, 2017

Principles of Authority in Romans 13:1–4

Bud Steadman

The story is told of a young man who was living a rebellious life and longed for his personal freedom from authority. One day in great anger he cried out, “I’m tired of my parents telling me what to do. I want to run my own life.” So, he joined the Marines.

We are living in a day when authority in every realm is being rejected in the name of personal liberty and individualism. The late Vance Havner rightly said, “Our world is fast becoming a madhouse, and the inmates are trying to run the asylum. It is a strange time when the patients are writing the prescriptions, the students are threatening to run the schools, the children to manage the homes, and church members — not the Holy Spirit — to direct the churches.”

While the Bible is clear that in the last days there will be a universal casting off of restraints, God’s people have a compelling need to return to the understanding and practice of His principles of authority.

All Authority Originates with God Himself

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God (Rom. 13:1).

To discuss the authority of Almighty God seems a bit meaningless, and to question it would be absurd. Can we imagine the Lord God of Hosts having to request permission of anyone or to apply for anything to a higher body? To whom would God go for permission? Who is higher than the Highest? Who is mightier than the Almighty? Whose position antedates that of the Eternal? At whose throne would God kneel? Where is the greater one to whom he must appeal? … Every soul belongs to God and exists by his pleasure. God being who and what he is, and we being who and what we are, the only thinkable relation between us is one of full lordship on his part and complete submission on ours. We owe him every honor that it is in our power to give him (A. W. Tozer, from Edythe Draper, Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World [Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992], entry 4955).

God has ordained three primary institutions of authority for the good of man and the glory of God: the family for the propagation of life through a husband and wife; the state for the preservation of life through the enforcement of just laws; and the church for the proclamation of life through the gospel of Jesus Christ. God designed these institutions for the temporal restraining of evil and the functioning of men in a structured, civilized society, and for His eternal purposes in working in the souls of men.

The Family

Ephesians 6:1 states, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.”

The parent who does not teach his child to obey is doing the greatest disservice to his child. The habit of implicit obedience to authority is the foundation of good citizenship, and more importantly, the foundation of future subjection to God’s authority.

The State

The Lord Jesus commended submission to secular government as a quality necessary for true spirituality when He spoke with the centurion who called himself “a man under authority” (Matt. 8:9). Why did he not say a man with authority? The reason was that above the centurion was the senior centurion; above the senior centurion were the 60 centurions of the Roman legion; above those 60 centurions were the six tribunes; above the six tribunes, the two consuls; and — in the imperial system of Rome — above the two consuls, the Emperor himself (Tan’s Encyclopedia of 15,000 Illustrations, entry 12342, “A Man Under Authority”).

The Church

The writer of Hebrews states, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” (13:7).

When I first enrolled in Bible college, I approached my spiritual authorities with faulty reasoning. In the denominational system in which I had been raised, I was taught to follow my own convictions instead of my authorities — a perverted sort of “we ought to obey God rather than man.” Any rule I agreed with, I obeyed. Any that I took issue with as being “extra-Biblical,” I ignored. Needless to say, I ended up having to deal with some sin in my life. God eventually brought me to Hebrews 13:7, and the matter was settled. God’s will for my life relating to spiritual authority was surrender and obedience, because all authority comes from Him!

Our Response to Authority Is in Reality Our Response to God

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God (Rom. 13:2a).

“Submit” is not a word that means that an individual becomes a non-person, gives up all rights and responsibilities, or always agrees with his authority. In fact it was a word used in the Roman military to describe the relationship between a colonel and a general. The general had ultimate responsibility. The colonel had responsibility and was a highly respected individual, yet he deferred overall and ultimate authority to the general (Tan’s Encyclopedia of 15,000 Illustrations, entry 12367, “The Real Meaning of Submission”). Oswald Chambers wrote, “Independence is not strength but unrealized weakness and is the very essence of sin. There was no independence in our Lord, the great characteristic of his life was submission to his Father” (Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World, entry 6414).

Andrew Murray gives us sound counsel in this regard.

The true pupil, say of some great musician or painter, yields his master a wholehearted and unhesitating submission. In practicing his scales or mixing the colors, in the slow and patient study of the elements of his art, he knows that it is wisdom simply and fully to obey. It is this wholehearted surrender to His guidance, this implicit submission to His authority, which Christ asks. We come to Him asking Him to teach us the lost art of obeying God as He did. … The only way of learning to do a thing is to do it. The only way of learning obedience from Christ is to give up your will to Him and to make the doing of His will (and the will of His authorities) the one desire and delight of your heart (Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Obedience, quoted in Christianity Today, Vol. 30, No. 13).

Rebellion to Authority Brings God’s Disfavor and Judgment

And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation (Rom. 13:2b).

The word “damnation” means condemnation with resultant punishment, the consequences of rebellion in our lives. King Saul suffered the consequences of his rebellion against the authority of God in the matter of Agag and the Amalekites. Samuel’s message of judgment was clear to the anointed king of God’s people: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Sam. 15:23).

Godly Authority Is Designed for Both Reward and Punishment

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Rom. 13:3, 4).

Authority Should Create an Environment for the Praise of Those Who Do Good

The goal of good and godly authority is always twofold, according to the writer of Hebrews:

(1) Doing what is right before God. “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” (13:7). A Yugoslavian proverb says, “If you wish to know what a man is, place him in authority.”

(2) Doing what is good for the person under their authority. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (13:17). The Lord Jesus Christ always did that which pleased His Father and brought blessing to those under His authority.

Concerning the balance of authority and shepherding oversight in the ministry of our Lord, Oswald Chambers wrote,

Jesus Christ exhibited a divine paradox of the lion and the lamb. He was the Lion in majesty, rebuking the winds and demons. He was the Lamb in meekness, “who when he was reviled, reviled not again.” He was the Lion in power, raising the dead. He was the Lamb in patience who was brought “as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” He was the Lion in authority, “Ye have heard that it hath been said … but I say unto you.” He was the Lamb in gentleness, “Suffer the little children to come unto me” (Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World, entry 6425).

Authority Should Create an Environment for Punishment of Those Who Do Evil

Shortly after the Sioux had massacred General George Armstrong Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn and had fled to Canada, the Northwest Mounted Police were charged with the task of controlling the Indians. There were only five Mounties stationed in the same area as the vast Sioux tribe. Consequently, the Mounties thought they had better seize the initiative. The five law enforcement officers and two guides rode directly into the Sioux camp and headed for Sitting Bull’s tent. They laid down a list of rules for Sioux behavior if the tribe expected to be allowed to stay in Canada. Then, spotting an Indian sitting on a stolen horse, they arrested the Indian and rode quietly out of the camp (Richard Wokomir, “Mounties Forever, But These Days Rarely on Horseback,” Smithsonian [February 1989], p. 82). The very boldness of the Mounties’ actions conveyed to the Indians that here was an authority to be obeyed. If authority would be Biblically effective in its societal role, it must communicate and practice swift punishment for those who practice evil.

Modern America follows a philosophy of popular leadership based on opinion polls, finding out which way the parade is going, and then getting in front of the parade. In such a world we need to live by God’s authority principles as taught in Romans 13. The German legislator F. J. Stahl, at the 11th sitting of the Volkshause of the Erfurt Parliament, was presented a cup by his adherents with these words engraved upon it: “Authority, Not Majority” (Tan’s Encyclopedia of 15,000 Illustrations, entry 6823, “Authority, Not Majority”). Such a theme would suit God’s people well in 2001. [Or 2016. — ed.]


Dr. Bud Steadman is the Executive Director of Baptist World Mission.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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